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Summer Relationship Tune Up

How are your relationships doing these days? Might any of your relationships be ready for a little “upgrade” or TLC this summer?

John and Julie Gottmans, leaders in the field of couples therapy and relationships, offer an interesting framework to notice challenges and improve relationships. They call this the “Four Horsemen”, coined from the idea of the horsemen of the apocalypse. According to extensive research, these are communication styles that “can predict the end of a relationship” (Lisitsa, 2013) and show up during conflict. Every relationship has conflict in different forms whether expressed or unexpressed. The key is to work on how we manage this in healthy ways. And the good news is that every horseman has a research-based “antidote” we can learn to use.

The first horseman is “criticism” which involves “global and expressive negative feelings or opinions about the other’s character” (Gottman, 2015) or behavior. Telltale signs of criticism include words like “never” or “always” and often are harsh. The antidote is to do a “gentle start-up” which involves using “I Messages” to state what you are feeling and name a positive need such as “when you leave the floor muddy I feel frustrated. I would really appreciate if you could keep the floor cleaner.”

The second horseman is “contempt” which is when one “assumes a position of moral superiority” (Lisitsa, 2013). This can look like name-calling, hostility, eye-rolling, or ridicule. The antidote is to create “a culture of appreciation” (Lisitsa, 2013). This can include noticing strengths in your partner (versus deficits) and regularly expressing gratitude and kindness.

Defensiveness is the third horseman. It involves acting like the victim and often switching the blame onto the other person as a form of self-protection. The antidote to defensiveness is to take ownership for your mistakes and any role you have played in the situation and apologize.

The last horseman is stonewalling which is basically withdrawing and tuning the other person out. It is often a response to contempt and people typically stonewall because they are “flooded” – physiologically and emotionally overwhelmed. When flooded we tend to say things that are hurtful and are not able to have productive conversations. The antidote is to end the discussion. Immediately. And to self-soothe – take time out and do something to calm and soothe your mind and body for at least 20 minutes.

Which horseman or horsemen to you use the most? How could you work to change this and develop solid antidotes? Perhaps discuss this with the ones you love. Especially as we move into summer and possibly more time with loved ones, might this be a good time for a “tune up”? If so, you could consider ways to banish the horsemen and instead nourish a relationship in your life with more love and positive attention. After all, what we appreciate, appreciates.

References & Resource Ideas

-Esther Perel’s website:

-Gottman Institute’s website & free e-newsletter:

-“Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love” by Sue Johnson, 2018

-“The Four Horsemen” by Ellie Lisitsa:

-“The Four Horsemen: The Antidotes” by Ellie Lisitsa:

-“The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” by John M Gottman, 2015


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